Earlier this fall the U.S. Postal Service released a new white paper titled “The Postal Service and Cities: A ‘Smart’ Partnership.” This white paper is a follow-up to a previous paper released in 2015.
As urban populations are increasing across the country, cities are investing in “smart” technology to improve city services, reduce traffic, and increase quality of life for residents. The Postal Service said that with its vast physical network that it is well suited to collect data needed for smart city initiatives. The 2015 white paper from the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) described this idea. To better understand how the USPS could support smart city initiatives, the OIG conducted interviews with city, university, and private-sector stakeholders involved in smart city projects. This latest paper presents the interview results, as well as additional research.
The paper’s key findings are:
- Widespread Adoption: Cities large and small across the United States are undertaking smart initiatives in a variety of project categories, ranging from energy and infrastructure to health care and education.
- Technological Issues: Barriers to furthering these initiatives include limited city budgets, cities’ relative lack of technical expertise, and difficulties in collecting, storing, and analyzing large amounts of data.
- Existing infrastructure: The Postal Service has a vast infrastructure of carriers, vehicles, post offices, and mailboxes that, if equipped with sensors and other data collection devices, could facilitate the collection of multiple types of data for local governments.
- Interest at a Local Level: Interviews revealed great interest by city officials in collaborating with the Postal Service and identified specific pilot opportunities where the Postal Service could be a valuable partner. These opportunities include monitoring city infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, monitoring air quality, and identifying vacant properties to help fight urban blight.
- Cost Savings: Becoming involved in these projects could translate into cost savings for the Postal Service itself (e.g. better pavement conditions would reduce vehicle maintenance costs), help the Postal Service advance its sustainability plans, strengthen its role as a public service provider, and potentially generate new revenue.
- Data Privacy Concerns: Before offering data collection services for cities, the Postal Service would need to address questions surrounding data ownership, privacy, and security as well as the admissibility of these services under the current regulatory framework. Furthermore, the Postal Service would need to select a suitable business model, determine the appropriate level of its involvement, and consult with unions especially if any work is required of the postal employees.
The USPS has also identified five specific smart city projects where it could collaborate on pilot programs to help accelerate the technology adoption.
USPS offers a few assets that are highly valued by cities, according to the interviews.
First, vehicles used by the USPS could be fitted with sensors that could monitor:
- Air quality or other environmental measurements.
- Mobile, wireless, and radio signal strength.
- Gas leaks or biological and chemical agents.
- Traffic patterns.
- Road and bridge integrity.
Second, postal carriers can be used to actively input data that cannot be collected passively. Carriers could easily be given handheld devices that come with apps to collect needed data. According to the report, postal carriers could help collect data concerning:
- Fallen tree limbs.
- Damaged public property.
- Overflowing trash cans.
- Streets and sidewalks covered in snow.
- Vacant and abandoned property.
Finally, the USPS has a large number of stationary objects, such as public mailboxes and post offices. In interviews, city officials in Pittsburgh were interested in using post offices in underprivileged parts of the city as outreach facilities. Post offices could also be used as Wi-Fi hot spot locations for citizens living in “tech deserts.”
The white paper also addressed five pilot programs that it could help cities with, and drawings explaining how each project would work.
Pilot 1: Monitoring Pavement Conditions in Pittsburgh
Pilot 2: Monitoring Bridge Conditions in Pittsburgh
Pilot 3: Managing Water Infrastructure in Montgomery County, Md.
Pilot 4: Identifying Warning Signs of Urban Blight in the New York Capital Region
Pilot 5: Monitoring Air Quality in Portland, Ore.